Instead of celebrating failure, let’s do science.

One of the closely held tenets of agile software development is that we should “fail fast” – we need to do the thing that’s commonly referred to as failure, because it helps us to learn. An aspect of this is that we should try to find ways to celebrate failure, to remove the stigma from it, and give ourselves permission to fail. This is correct, and it’s also admirable; we’re trying to reclaim the word failure and remove its power over us.

I think, however, that this effort is probably doomed to failure. No pun intended.

The problem is that words have power. We give them that power, of course, and we can change it. But so much of the power of words is a collective effort, so much is the product of all of us together, that a small movement has little change of reclaiming a word and repurposing it for their own means. All of the people who haven’t heard of you will still be using the word, and more importantly hearing the word, in the existing context and with the existing meaning.

We may, in our community, talk about “failing fast” and regard that as a good thing. But for those outside our community, who don’t have our context for this use of the word, it sounds like we’re trying to do a bad thing more quickly. And that’s weird. Weird things may make good conversation starters, but I’d rather the conversation was about the kind of benefits we’re trying to achieve than about the semantics of our word choices.

We’ll just skip over the fact that this entire blog post is about word choices. :)

All right, if I don’t think that we should be talking about “failure,” then how should we describe what we’re doing? I think we should use a word that describes both the process we’re using and has positive connotations (at least for most people):


Science is about figuring out the world. It’s about finding out what works and what doesn’t. Isn’t that what we’re trying to do with our “failing fast”? We’re trying to determine what works by testing things. We’re not failing. We’re learning. We’re doing science.

So let’s stop trying to make “failure” into a word that doesn’t mean bad things. Let’s instead stop using it to describe what we’re doing when we learn. Let’s talk about learning what doesn’t work. Because that’s an unambiguously good thing.

Who’s with me?

I do not think that word means what you think it means.

When Inigo says to Vizzini “I don’t think (that word) means what you think it means,” it’s possible that he’s making a remarkably insightful statement about both of them.

I’m an anthropologist both by education and inclination. I attended Macalester College in St. Paul MN, and I had the good fortune to study under Dave McCurdy. Dave’s one of the leading figures in ethnographic interviewing, which is an great tool for studying microcultures – groups of people who share a common language and understanding.

It’s probably useful to put microcultures in context.

I’m an American, so I’m part of that culture.
I’m a gamer, so I’m part of that subculture.
I played World of Warcraft, so I’m part of that microculture. Not that it’s particularly “micro.”

Microcultures can nest inside one another – to World of Warcraft players, there’s a notable difference between Alliance and Horde, for example, or between those in your guild and those outside it. They can be as small as a few people.

The thing about microcultures is that they’re defined primarily in terms of sharing a common language – not English or Spanish, but still full of meaning. An example: My wife and I were discussing a way to the word “Hudson.” We live in Minnesota, so she said “like Wisconsin.” I work in computer engineering, so I said “like the build server that Jenkins is branched from!” I knew what she meant, because we share the “from Minnesota” culture. She had no idea what I meant, because she isn’t part of the “computer engineering” culture.

We’re all part of many microcultures. Each of them adds layers of meaning to our lives, and we use words within those contexts to communicate efficiently with other people in the same microculture. When I remember to listen for the words that people use (nouns, verbs, adjectives – anything), and set aside my own understanding of those words, I can figure out what the people saying them mean here and now, instead of assuming that they mean the thing I would if I used them.

This is especially useful when you’re in a discussion with people who are embedded in different contexts that give them different sets of understandings for the words they’re using. My friend Michael Nygard has a presentation called Architecture Without an End State (which is eminently worth watching), in which he makes the point that different parts of an organization have different meanings and expectations for “customer.” Order Management thinks about those-who-have-orders, Marketing thinks about those-to-whom-we-market and Dotcom thinks of those-who-have-a-login. They’re all right, for their microculture context, but using the same word when crossing domain boundaries makes for confusion and anger. I’ve sat in far too many meetings with people getting shouty at one another about who gets to define data requirements for “customer” for one lifetime, and I bet I’m not done.

Sometimes (not always) I’ve been able to add value in these meetings by pointing out that we’re using the same word to mean different things, and trying to tease out the assumptions behind the words. If done early enough, this can defuse the argument over who “owns” the word in question in favor of an attempt to reach understanding, or an agreement to use a different word with less baggage.

So what’s my sage advice for you, dear reader? Listen. Ask yourself if the words you are hearing are being used to mean the things that you think they are. Because if they’re not, and you think they are, then you’re going to make mistakes.

Sleepwalking down memory lane

I have this feeling that I’ve written about this before, but I can’t find it in my blog, or in Michael’s. And looking back through the last year of posts over there was… painful. So if I’m repeating myself, forgive me.

When I was in college, I was a DJ. It started the summer before I began classes, in fact. Michael somehow found out about WMCN, which was weird, because we could barely get the signal way over in Minneapolis, since WMCN was just 10 watts. But somehow he figured out that it existed, and that I could get a show there. I applied, got a show, and we did it together. We called it “Sleepwalk” and led off with the Ultravox song of the same name.

It was fun, and I kept doing it throughout the four years I spent at Mac (1984-88 for those keeping score at home). As he had that first summer, Michael shared the studio with me many times – often enough that when I was filling out the application, I’d list the DJ as “The Unstoppable Matheny Brothers” – and even when he wasn’t there, his influence was.

If you want to get a sample of his (and my) musical tastes of that time, check out his Pandora station:

This summer is my 25-year college reunion. And the folks at WMCN are offering alumni the chance to DJ a show. I jumped at the chance, and signed up for Friday June 7th from 10pm-Midnight. My pitch was to do a retrospective of New Wave from its roots in the late 70s through the modern artists still keeping the sound alive. That sounded like a really good idea at the time, but having just spent a couple of hours in iTunes building a playlist, I realize it’s going to be a tall order to fit into two hours. I’m going to have to be ruthless in my selection, because right now I’ve got 11.2 hours of songs.

And it’s going to be hard, because part of the reason I’m doing this is for Michael. I wouldn’t have been a DJ if not for him. Explaining that is hard – I mean, I can do it in writing like this, because no matter how tight my throat gets I can still type. And thanks to my high school typing classes, I’m a touch-typist, so the tears blurring my vision aren’t a problem. Go me.

So I’m going to ask my friend John Slade if he’ll be my wingman for this – he was my best friend in college (and still is) and he knows my musical tastes. And if I’m unable to take the mic to explain why I’m playing a particular song, he’ll have my back.

Wish me luck. And strength. And come Friday June 7th, give a listen at I promise you’ll hear good music.

One week in

I started work at Digital River this past week. Here’s my thoughts after the first week.

I’m excited. Not only is this a new start for me, which is great, but I’m impressed with the people here. We need to make some changes in the way we develop software, of course, but I’ve never met a group as open to change and as aware of the need as I’m finding here. There’s not the kind of resistance that I encountered at Best Buy. There aren’t people saying “no, we can’t do that.”

It isn’t all rainbows and unicorns, of course. There’s hard work to do and significant pressure to do it right. But I’m convinced that we have a great plan, and that our leaders have their heads on straight.

Sadly, I couldn’t say that when I was at Best Buy. I have a lot of respect for Hubert Joly and Sharon McCollam, but I (respectfully) think they’re setting the wrong course for They’re thinking in terms of a turnaround, which is appropriate for most of the company. But isn’t in a turnaround, it’s in the midst of a transformation. That’s not the point when you get tight on expense dollars – that’s the point when you double down on investing, because you have the cash and you need the benefits sooner rather than later. Days are more important than dollars, and they’re losing days and weeks as they try to minimize spend. The emphasis on cost control and inspection is wildly wrong for positioning and the Platform for success. It’s right for much of IT, because of the bloated management-heavy structure that’s a legacy of the Accenture outsource. But it’s going to kill the Platform, and that makes me sad. I hope I’m wrong, because I am proud of the work we did and I want it to succeed.

But enough about Best Buy, I’m talking about Digital River.

DR is in a different place. Yes, we still care about controlling costs. But our leaders are investing in engineering. That starts with putting Dave Moore in charge, which is a truly awesome thing. He’s not just a visionary leader with a deep knowledge of the business and how to grow it, which is a rare enough thing in a technology executive. He’s also a really great human being.

Let me tell you a story. Some while back, when I was being recruited, I’d told Dave about someone I thought we should bring in in a coaching role – a colleague of mine named Kyle. In my first week, I reached out to Kyle and asked him to stop by for the end of the day on Friday (which is Beer Friday at DR, by the way). Kyle came out, we grabbed a beer and I was giving him a tour and we ran into Dave.

Dave moved another meeting and spent 20 minutes talking non-stop to Kyle about what we’re doing and why he (Dave) believes in this, before he had to run to another appointment. Talking with Kyle afterward, I pointed out something that I’d noticed: Dave didn’t spend any time at all trying to evaluate Kyle. He just pitched him on why DR was a great place to work. This is because I’d told Dave that Kyle was good, and he trusted me.

Let me repeat that: Dave trusted me. If I said Kyle was good and we needed him, Dave wasn’t going to waste any time second-guessing me.

That’s incredibly rare. I’ve had that just three times in the last 25 years.

And it makes me want to share it with other people, in particular my friends and colleagues that I’ve met at Best Buy – spending 13 years in one place means that my network is heavy with BBY folk. But recruiting people out of BBY is not just tacky, it’s wrong – as I noted above, I want the Platform team at BBY to succeed.

So I’m arriving at this…

For my friends and colleagues at BBY: Keep up the good work. I’m rooting for you. When your work there is done, if you’re willing, I’d love a chance to tell you about what I’m doing and what we’re doing here and see if what we’re building is something you’d like to work on in your next phase.

– Kevin

A new chapter begins

13 years is a long time. When I started working at, the Internet was a lot smaller than it is today. Youtube and Facebook didn’t exist, nobody had heard of Google, and while the iPod owned the portable music player market, it had a monochromatic screen and moving parts.

It’s long enough for me to have been part of some very cool things – Best Buy Entertainment, the Digiterra Project, ARIES, Remix, EPIC, and the replatforming of on open-source and the cloud. I’ve had the chance to work with some truly awesome people, and I’ve learned a lot.

And it’s time to move on. I’m resigning at Best Buy, and joining Digital River to lead API development. I’ll be working with some really excellent people – some of whom I’ve worked with before, and some who are new to me – and I’m excited about the challenge in front of me.

I’m sad to be leaving Best Buy behind. It’s been a great place for me, full of people I’m proud to have worked with and learned from. I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to see the work that I helped start come to fruition, but I have every confidence that it will be awesome.

Update posted over at Mike’s blog

I’ve posted a melancholy update over at

News, Q’s and Views: Making team meetings better

I work as part of a team of leaders. Each of us has responsibility for one or more teams working on parts of’s overall Platform effort. We’re also responsible as a team for developing and communicating a view of the Platform architecture, and for providing architectural support and insight to other projects and efforts that touch on Best Buy’s presence on the web. So we’re busy, but sharing information is vitally important. To make this happen, we have a standup every morning.

It’s not a traditional standup, since we’re not am agile team. We have standups with our teams that do use that format, but for our own standup, we’ve evolved a different methodology that works really well. It took us a while to figure out, but it’s been stable for months, and serves us really well.

Our original approach didn’t work very well. We started out trying to do the Three Questions, but we were mostly talking about our calendars, since Best Buy has a lot of meetings. We’ve managed to keep our dev teams out of most of those, but as leaders, we’re stuck with them. And some of them are really useful – we learn things, give information and make decisions, so it’s not all bad.

The problem we were having is that each of us had a variable amount of information to share, and some of it required discussion. So sometimes Jason’s update would take 10 minutes, because we were covering something important, and then Steve would take another 10, and then we’re trying to get me, Arun, Joel and Tanmay in in the last 10 minutes. Hope we didn’t have something that required serious discussion!

We started trying to use a parking lot, which helped a bit – as we discovered things requiring discussion, they could go into the parking lot, and our updates could go faster. Plus, knowing how much was in the parking lot could help us divvy up time to get through it and end on time. But that wasn’t enough – we were still discovering that stuff during the process of updating, and taking time to capture it to the board. And a parking lot is a practice that needs to be invoked: when Tanmay’s update sparks a question from me, Steve needs to step in and remind us that it’s an item for the parking lot. That takes time and creates breaks in the rhythm. And it wasn’t dealing with one of the unproductive things that comes up, which is venting about the things that go wrong but we can’t change.

So one day I walked in and, on a whim, wrote three categories on the board:
– News
– Questions
– Rants

As the team walked in, I explained that we could use this to categorize our parking lot.
– If we had a piece of information to share that would take a minute or more, it should go into News.
– If we had something that would require discussion, feedback or input – any kind of conversation, really – it should go into Questions.
– And if we just wanted to vent about something, it should go into Rants.

It went really well. Separating out “things I need to tell you about” from “things I need to ask you about” is really helpful, the general rule that anything more than 60 seconds goes on the board helps to keep individual updates short, and perhaps best of all, the visual indicator of the amount to cover helps us all stay focused and move quickly when we need to.

Perhaps best of all, explicitly recognizing that some of the stuff we are doing is just ranting is really helpful. You can write down the title of your rant and leave it at that – simply letting the team know that you want to rant about the firewall, or data problems in QA, or Powerpoint, can take the place of actually needing to do it. It’s cathartic.

Over the past months, we’ve amended the final column into Views, rather than Rants, both because it rhymes (News, Q’s and Views) and because sometimes we want to share things that are going well instead of just ranting.

If you have a similar team meeting need, I encourage you to give it a try. Let me know what you think.

Converting 4E D&D Magic to Fate

I’ve been running a 4E campaign since mid-2008. We play every other week. Or so. We’ve missed a fair amount of sessions with things like holidays, vacations, hunting season and the like, so the characters are just 13th level, nearing 14. One thing we’ve all been complaining about for a while is the amount of system in the system. There are hundreds of feats, dozens of powers, and trying to keep current with the rules is just getting burdensome. Combat takes hours, and the whole system is really just a combat engine with a vestigial skills section in the bottom right-hand corner of one of the 5 pages of the character sheet.

I’ve been interested in Fate since I ran across Spirit of the Century, which combines a great setting (pulp adventure – I’m a Doc Savage fan) with an elegant rules system. We played some Spirit of the Century a year or two ago during a D&D break, and I’m running an SotC adventure at Con of the North. So I proposed to the gang last week that we consider ditching the rules but keeping the game going, with the same characters and story.

They all like the idea, so in 2 weeks, we’re going to be giving it a shot.

One thing that is going to be interesting is magic. Magic is big part of D&D, and we have three magic-users in our party: Tantrym, the tiefling wizard, Tym, the changeling sorceress, and Kermit the Hermit, human cleric of Gordo, He Who Bringeth The Approved Apocalypse.

So we are going to need to figure out a way to do magic. Fate Core doesn’t have magic rules per se, and the Magic System toolkit by Rob Donoghue (which is really good, by the way) isn’t aimed at the kind of magic that D&D provides, so I need to figure out how to add it in.

In Rob’s framework, defining a magic system means considering 5 topics: Tone, Cost, Limits, Availability and Source.

Tone: Magic is aligned with forces – mages and sorcerers channel elemental powers, and clerics channel divine power. In Rob’s terms, wizard/sorcerer magic is Flavored and clerical magic is Opinionated.

Cost: Using magic means not doing something else – so there is a tradeoff. Getting access to magic requires both stunts (for Awakening of magical powers) and skill points (to be good at using them). Magic is also hampered by cold iron, so mages can’t wear heavy armor. Clerics can, but have to observe other strictures dictated by the god they serve.

Limits: Each element or domain requires a separate stunt to allow its use, but within that element or domain, it’s fairly open-ended. If Tantrym takes Fire as an elemental affinity, she can create fire, move it, destroy it or command beings who are linked to it, pretty much as she sees fit, with appropriate skill rolls. Operating outside your domain puts you at a penalty, and working with an opposed domain (Water if you are a Fire mage, or Healing if you are a Smiting cleric), puts you at a serious penalty.

Availability: Anyone can study magic, and doing so grants some ability to decipher magical texts, work with magical items and even resist magical effects. Actual spellcasting requires Awakening or Inspiration.

Source: Magic is the fabric of the world itself, the reality that underlies reality. It’s what you see when you gaze into infinity and it looks back into the depths of your being.

Here’s what I have as a first pass.

There is a new skill called Arcana.

For most people, Arcana skill represents knowledge of the arcane – magic of all sorts, from hedge magic to summoning to elemental invocations to the miraculous powers of the gods. Characters with skill in Arcana can decipher magical writings, attempt to use magical items, and resist magical effects. For a select few, however, Arcana represents their ability to use their magical powers – either innate or God-given – to bend reality itself to their will. This is represented by the Awakened stunt for mages/sorcerers, or the Inspired stunt for clerics.

Overcome: For anyone, Arcana skill can be used to overcome magical effects placed on them (resist the Sleep spell, for instance) or break through magical barriers. This represents using their knowledge of magic to inform their efforts. In addition, Awakened or Inspired characters can try to bend magical items to their will

Create an Advantage: Awakened/Inspired characters can use Arcana to create an advantage – using cantrips to blind an opponent, cursing them with bad luck, waving Gordo’s Knobby Stick in their face, or what have you.

Attack: Awakened/Inspired characters can use Arcana to make attacks. Choose either melee distance or ranged (1 zone) as the default; making attacks at non-default range incurs a penalty of -1 per zone. Targets can defend with Arcana (if they have it), or with an appropriate skill based on the attack (Athletics to dodge Tym’s chaos bolts, Will to resist Kermit’s Light of Gordo, etc.)

Defend: Arcana can be used to defend against magical attacks in place of other skills, if you desire (presumably, because Arcana is higher than the other skill). It can’t be used to defend against non-magical attacks, unless you’ve taken a stunt to allow that.

Sample Stunts:
Awakening – Your inner magical power is awakened! This grants the ability to use Arcana to make attacks and create advantages. You should choose an element or domain that represents the type of magic that you do: Fire, Earth, Water, Mind, Shadow, Summoning, etc.

Inspiration – You have a connection to a divine entity, who grants you the ability to use Arcana to make attacks and create advantages. You should choose a domain that represents the type of magic that you do: Nature, Destruction, Healing, Justice, etc.

Familiar – You have a companion; it can be used to get into places you can’t see and do things in places you can’t reach. Mechanically, you can use any of your skills that makes sense for the form of the familiar – a cat can’t carry much, for instance – and it can act at least somewhat independently. The more powerful your familiar, the more independent it will be, for good or ill – it may have its own agenda.

Mage Armor – you can use Arcana in place of other defenses.

Introducing people to games

This started as a reply to a Google+ thread started by Rob Donoghue, but got longish, so I am moving it here.

The thread is about “which 5 boardgames make up Boardgames 101?” which is a great question. Rob clarifies with “I’m looking for games that you could give to someone and they could reasonably learn to play and enjoy without needing to be taught and without intimidating potential players with apparent complexity. Ideally, I would also like these to be games which could serve as a gateway to other, more complicated games down the line.”

The key thing here (to my mind) is the “without needing to be taught” aspect. These need to be games that people who don’t play games can figure out how to play. To that end, they need to have:

  • A game concept that is accessible
  • A goal and fundamental strategy that can be expressed in one or two sentences
  • Rules which are simple to read
  • Rules which are easy to retain in your head, without tricky sequencing or interactions
  • Minimum interaction of other players’ state with your decisions

This is all about minimizing cognitive load – the more mental energy people have to spend thinking about how to play the game, the less mental energy they have to spend on actually playing it, and enjoying the experience of playing it. This is not to say that some people don’t get a lot of enjoyment of thinking about rules interactions – I certainly do – but that those people aren’t the ones we are talking about. The people who like thinking about rules are probably already playing boardgames.

Reading through the 175+ responses to that post, I was struck by the number of people suggesting games that are considered classic, essential games, but that are not very accessible. These are games that are used to introduce non-gamers to boardgames *by gamers* – that is, when we get the chance to show someone a game, we use these. Games like Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, Munchkin, Pandemic and Small World. These are great games, which are lots of fun to play. But I don’t think they’re good games for non-gamers to use to introduce themselves to gaming.

Settlers of Catan has resource gathering, trading and building, with multiple ways to score points. It’s a lot to keep track of, which is part of what makes it a great game, but it’s not something I would give to someone to figure out on their own.

Ticket to Ride has an easily accessible theme (building railroads and carrying passengers), but the complexity of color-specific rail segments and route planning, along with the strategic choice involved in taking or not taking additional route cards, makes it less accessible.

Carcassonne‘s mix of building the map and placing meeples, along with the constantly evolving scoring picture based on the evolving map and the placement of your own and others’ meeples, makes it a hard game to learn on your own.

Munchkin is a simple basic rule set, but the sensibility of the game is tied to the shared experience of D&D that a novice gamer probably doesn’t have. The in-jokes stop being in-jokes and just get confusing. Munchkin also has the potential for you to screw yourself on your own turn with a bad draw, which is funny but not fun for the beginning gamer.

Pandemic is on the edge – the rules are simple and the players work together, which reduces the individual cognitive load, and while each player has a special power, they’re pretty easy to grasp. But the sheer number of things to keep track of and do in each players’ turn makes this one more complex than I would recommend for the novice.

Small World has a really simple ruleset, but each race/power combination breaks it in some way. It also has terrain types, strategic decisions about going into decline, and some unbalanced combinations. And the setting relies heavily on fantasy tropes, which may not appeal to the non-gamer we’re trying to get to.

So I wouldn’t recommend any of those – what would I recommend? Based on my own recent experiences with introducing non-gamers to boardgames, these are the games I take along when I’m going to visit my mom or my in-laws.

Trans America is a dead simple eurostyle rail game, kind of like Ticket to Ride but simpler. Which doesn’t mean that there’s not strategic depth, but does mean that it’s very accessible. My daughter was playing it with us at age 10 and teaching it to her friends at 11. Like TtR, you have a set of destinations. Unlike TtR, your rail placement per turn is fixed, you only have one set of destinations, and you can use other people’s rails to connect your destinations. It’s great for kids, and for adults. Especially if the adults are drinking.

Flapjacks and Sasquatches is a simple-but-fun game of competitive lumberjacking, with a silly sensibility. Like Munchkin, it’s a card game, but unlike Munchkin, the setting is pretty much universally accessible (at least in US audiences), the interactions with other players are fewer, and there’s really no way to screw yourself (although you can spend way too long waiting for an axe if you get bad draws).

Zombie Dice is fast, easy and fun. The rules are simple, it has a lot of chance and thus replayability, and games are over quickly. It helps a lot if you give people a set of brain tokens (we use brain-shaped pencil-top erasers).

Sometimes it hits you

So I’m catching up on Burn Notice. This is a series I discovered because it has Bruce Campbell in it. I stated watching it sometime in the last two years or so – after Mike’s diagnosis, before his cancer came back. It’s a good series, and I like it. Mike and I watched some of it together on Movie Night (every Wednesday at his place). It’s about a spy named Michael Westen, who gets “burned” (declared persona non grata) by his agency, and winds up in Miami solving crimes. It’s also about his friends and family, including his mom and his little brother Nate.

I’m going to talk about what happens in the sixth season, and I’m going to spoil plot developments, because I need to do that in order to be clear. Fair warning.

I’m glad I wasn’t watching the sixth season when it was airing this summer, because in episode 6, which aired in July, Nate dies.

I know it’s fictional, but it still hit home. I remembered the day that Mike died, and the tears came. They’re never that far away, really. If you want to see me cry, just ask me about my brother. He was awesome, and I loved him very much, and I miss him every day.